It’s been a tumultuous summer in the United Kingdom. A cascade of crises toppled former prime minister Boris Johnson in July. Inflation is soaring, the pound is plunging and the nation is bracing for a winter energy crisis.
Brexit has not yielded the autonomy, efficiency or prosperity that its champions promised — but it might spur the undoing of the 315-year union between England and Scotland. Then, on September 8, Queen Elizabeth II’s death marked the end, after 70 years, of a powerful symbol of stability.
US correspondents, struggling to make sense of these developments, have arrived at a familiar diagnosis. Britain, they smirk, is suffering the consequences of its decline. In July, one prominent newspaper heralded “A Darkened Outlook for Britain.”
A month later, the same outlet warned, “Crises Loom in UK.” Upon the queen’s death, it began asking, “Can the UK Remain United?” The implication was no — it could and would not.
This schadenfreude is not cold-eyed analysis but a tired cliche. Because while today’s challenges are certainly real, this diagnosis of decline is 150 years old. Of course, the UK no longer commands the raw power of a century ago. But “decline” is not a neutral characterisation of economic and geopolitical changes.
It implies something avoidable and regrettable, whereas these developments have been inevitable — and, in the case of the end of the British Empire, desirable.
End of singular hegemony
The first round of “declinism” emerged in the 1870s. A half-century after Britain’s industrialisation, Germany and the United States began to catch up. Their development heralded the end of Britain’s singular hegemony, spurring commentators to diagnose a nation in decline.
Yet, despite these melodramatic claims, it took another 70 years before the US displaced Britain as the world’s global hegemon. Even then, growing American wealth made Britain no poorer, while the end of the British Empire — and British colonialism — was an odd thing to mourn.
A second round of declinism flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Britain’s economy was actually growing faster than at any time in memory, but the rate of that growth lagged behind its European peers.
While Germany had bombed British cities during World War II, the UK had avoided invasion or occupation, leaving it with less ground to make up than the devastated states of continental Europe. Weirdly, then, entering the 1960s Western Europe’s richest economy was simultaneously cast as the one suffering endemic decline.
A third round of declinism dominated the 1980s. During the previous decade, in Britain as elsewhere, a series of recessions had produced political challenges. Speaking to the electorate’s anxieties, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promised to reverse Britain’s decline.
In practice, this grandiose pledge meant the routine business of repudiating the priorities of the outgoing Labour government. Decline, for the Conservatives, served not as an economic analysis but as a political weapon.
More wealthy, less imperial
Repeatedly during the previous century, then, commentators have rushed to announce Britain’s decline. But in each case, in different ways, these declarations have obscured more than they have revealed. What this tradition of commentary does not convey is that Britain today is more wealthy and less imperial than a century ago. Concern trolling aside, these are good things.
While the specifics have differed each time, today’s declinism shares with its predecessors one key assumption. Rather than understanding change as constant in a fluid world system, those trumpeting British decline imagine that things could go differently.
Britain’s challenges have generally resulted from happenings elsewhere: US and German industrialisation during the 19th century; anti-colonial nationalism after the Second World War; international recession in the 1970s; a global pandemic today. But rather than offering a worldly understanding of worldly events, declinists fixate on a single country’s supposed errors instead.
In this way, though they imagine themselves differently, today’s declinists are no different from yesterday’s imperialists. They all believe that a medium-sized European country should be able to engineer its own fate. But few nations — even the United States — enjoy such autonomy.
The normal life of nations sees them struggling to play the cards the wider world deals them. It just happens to be the case that, as today’s crises mount, those cards have lately included more Trumps than trumps.
England is an old country. Despite 150 years of announcements of its eclipse, today it is more prosperous and less imperial than a century ago.
It is certainly true that Britain has experienced changes, faces real challenges and suffers under a government prone to turning both into crises. But every successive crisis is not evidence of national collapse.
The queen is dead. England is not.
—Guy Ortolano teaches modern British history at New York University. He is currently a visiting professor of history at King’s College London.